Editor’s note: Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.”
In 1927, an oddly matched couple drove their used Dodge into Vermont to check out the scenery. The man: tall and long limbed. Laconic to the point of near silence. People found it hard to warm up to him. The woman: voluble and full of life, as if her personality were trying to make up for her short stature.
The couple enjoyed that first trip, which soon led to more and longer stays. The pair would eventually become famous, but their visits here have remained mostly unknown. They are minor footnotes in the great career carved out by the man, Edward Hopper, with the invaluable help of his wife, Jo, his tireless supporter.
Still, it is fascinating to glimpse the art world that Edward and Jo Hopper inhabited and chose to leave behind occasionally in search of fresh material in the rural world of Vermont. From stray threads, Vermont scholar and writer Bonnie Tocher Clause pieced together an absorbing account of those visits in her 2012 book, “Edward Hopper in Vermont.”
During his time in Vermont, Hopper created nearly two-dozen watercolors and a handful of landscape sketches. These pictures don’t fit neatly with the image we commonly have of Hopper’s work. He became famous for his oil paintings of hauntingly lonely scenes, many of them urban. His most well-known painting is perhaps “Night Hawks,” which depicts a hushed, late-night scene in a brightly lit urban diner. Critics comment on the sense of quiet tension that pervades many of Hopper’s paintings. His Vermont pieces lack that tension, but they share the feeling of calm, which distinguishes them as works by Hopper.
As Clause explains in her richly detailed book, Hopper was familiar with the most prominent Vermont landscape painters of his day — Luigi Lucioni, Paul Sample and Henry Schnakenberg — but preferred to steer his own course. Clause theorizes that Hopper probably found Lucioni’s paintings too photographically realistic, Sample’s too freighted with social commentary, and Schnakenberg’s just too pretty.
Hopper was interested in making pictures that were honest depictions of Vermont, but which avoided the expected. In them, you’ll find no covered bridges or white churches, and few farm buildings. Instead, he preferred hillsides and river views. Though he didn’t include people in his Vermont paintings, Hopper didn’t expunge evidence that this is a settled state. At first glimpse, some of his Vermont paintings can appear to be simply scenic landscapes, but the artist has left in the road running beside the river, the gravel pit carved into the hillside and the fence posts that line the roadway.
Clause’s book is a neat bit of historical reconstruction. Until now, the Hoppers’ time in Vermont has been little commented on, let alone explored. In her research, Clause delved into the Hopper Research Collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, where she studied Josephine Hopper’s invaluable papers, including her catalogue of her husband’s work and her personal correspondence. Clause even tracked down the son of the farm family with which the Hoppers boarded for two summers. The son had long since moved to California.
To tell the story of Vermont’s brush with artistic greatness, Clause had to explain the art world in which the Hoppers lived. Edward was by no means the icon then that he is now, more than a half century after his death. For years, he worked as a commercial artist, doing fine art painting on the side. Despite having his work included in shows of the Whitney Studio Club, which would evolve into New York’s Whitney Museum, Hopper sold pieces only sporadically.
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The Hoppers lived outside the New York art world as much as they could. That was Edward’s choice. It suited his brooding and introverted personality. Clause makes a point of describing the artist colonies that thrived in towns like Cornish, New Hampshire, and later in Manchester, Vermont. These were places for artists to gather and find camaraderie and inspiration. Edward, whom a friend dubbed “the Calvin Coolidge of painters” for his quiet way, wanted nothing of them.
When the Hoppers visited Vermont, they did it their own way. They started in 1927 with a series of daytrips from the home of friends in New Hampshire. Then, nearly a decade later, they returned, apparently for an overnight, in 1936. That visit inspired them to return for a pair of month-long stays in 1937 and 1938. Vermont presented fresh material for Edward, but Jo was familiar with the state from her time as a craft counselor at Aloha Hive, a girl’s camp on Lake Fairlee.
Hopper painted five watercolors during his visits to Vermont in 1927. His early pieces include views of barns, other farm buildings, and a few animals. It was his first take on the Vermont landscape. As he refined his vision of Vermont, Clause notes, he stopped painting farm scenes, except for one watercolor of a sugarhouse he painted in 1938.
Paintings from 1927 suggest that the Hoppers traveled from the Bellows Falls area up to central Vermont. Among the scenes Edward painted were watercolors of a bridge on the Middlesex-Berlin town line and a hillside that Jo recorded as being near Plainfield.
By the time the Hoppers returned to Vermont in the late 1930s, Edward had become a prominent painter. He had just won the top prize and $2,000 at a show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and Life magazine had named him “one of America’s best living painters.”
If Hopper had already made a name for himself, Vermont was still trying. The state was marketing itself as a tourist destination. Writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a transplant to the state, wrote that Vermont was the cure for people tired of the “roaring, money-making industrialized world.” As part of its marketing efforts, Vermont encouraged farmers to open their homes as lodgings for travelers. The state didn’t yet have a large network of hotels, motels and inns.
The Slaters of South Royalton were one of the farm families that decided to offer accommodations to make a little extra cash. How the Hoppers happened upon the Slaters’ farm is unclear, but what started as a business transaction blossomed into friendship. In their hosts, the Hoppers found kindred spirits. Both couples were politically conservative, and distrustful of Franklin Roosevelt’s expansion of federal authority to combat the Great Depression, then in full swing. Robert Slater had only recently taken up farming after losing his position as local postmaster to a Democratic appointee. Irene was the prototypical farmwife, having mastered the numerous tasks that her role demanded. Jo and Irene became fast friends. Edward enjoyed the Slaters, who as Vermonters were comfortable with his silences, and particularly enjoyed Irene’s excellent cooking, a task Jo disdained. The Hoppers felt at home on the Slaters’ farm. Edward even helped with chores, though he was hopeless when it came to milking.
With the Slaters’ farm as base, Edward completed a series of watercolors of the White River, showing it in good weather and bad. His finest painting of the river is probably “First Branch of the White River, Vermont,” which he created in 1938. To paint it, Hopper climbed a hillside on the Slaters’ property. The slope made it hard to perch on his stool. But the view was worth the effort. From that spot, he captured the mirror-like White River arcing gracefully to the right. Hopper declined to edit out the roadway, which parallels the route of the river.
The next year, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston purchased the painting. And the Hoppers moved on to capture other scenes, never again returning to Vermont.